If you are tied into social media, you are probably aware of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It is a viral phenomenon in which people challenge each other to dump a bucket of ice water on their head, in the name of raising awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the fatal degenerative disorder more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Its origins are unclear. According to what I could glean from Wikipedia, there were a series of videos of cold water challenges to raise money for charities, then at some point it got picked up and attached to ALS. It then continued to spread as celebrities, politicians and others got in on the act. The basic idea is this: one is challenged to either dump a bucket of ice water on one’s head or donate money to charity. Once one goes through with it and makes a public video, they can challenge others to do it as well and, in a version, those challenged have 24 hours to follow through.
While at one point it seemed that the water dumping was supposed to be a way of getting out of giving a donation, the challenge has changed and now it is to dump water and give money—it is a way of raising awareness and funds. And it has been very successful: The ALS Association raised over $40 million in July and August alone, which is almost double what it raised in all of last year.
And yes, I got in on the act. I was challenged to do it by Rabbi Cheski Edelman, our local Chabad rabbi. And I enlisted my boys to help me get a bit creative:
The Ice Bucket Challenge is not without its detractors. Some see it as a lazy form of engagement that doesn’t really engage one in the work for social change. Others see it as drawing attention away from other worthwhile causes. Some have more deeper issues with the challenge: that ALS research uses animal testing, or ALS research involves stem cell research, or that doing it in California is problematic because of the drought. Still others kvetch that while raising the money is good what we really need is government support and research grants.
I can’t deny that privately raised funds should go to augment publicly funded research and not replace it. And I recognize that there are philosophical and even theological reasons for shunning an ice water bath. But the criticisms that it is a lazy form of social action leave me cold.
The criticism strikes me as perhaps driven by envy. One of the interesting things about the internet and social media is that we never know what is going to go viral and what is not. (Like an actual virus, how it will spread, who will catch it, are difficult questions for which to anticipate answers.) The Ice Bucket Challenge happened to start out as a small thing, then happened to get connected to ALS, then happened to go viral. And because it went viral fundraising for ALS became tremendously successful. Sure there are other worthy causes. But in this case the stars aligned a particular way, and the result is that millions of dollars were raised for a disease that often goes overlooked. The ice bucket challenge may not have created world peace, but it did a world of good.
What struck me about the Ice Bucket Challenge is the fact that what was going viral in this case was not a silly cat video, or a dance craze, but an act of tzedakah. Yes it was funny and fun, but ultimately it was a mitzvah—a sacred obligation and good deed—being passed along from person to person. A text in the ancient Jewish collection Pirke Avot, “Teachings of our Ancestors,” teaches mitzvah goreret mitzvah, or “one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah,” i.e., engaging in one mitzvah conditions a person to engage in another, and then another. In this case, because of the challenge’s public nature, it’s not just the one person doing a mitzvah who is conditioned to do another, but one person conditions another person to do a mitzvah. The mitzvot grow exponentially. With the Ice Bucket Challenge, tzedakah grows exponentially.
This week we have just entered the month of Elul. Elul is the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, and so ushers in the High Holiday season. Once we reach Elul, we begin to do the spiritual work of the High Holidays: looking inward, noting where we have been on our journeys, and noting where we want to go. We acknowledge the missteps we took, we make amends when necessary and we make commitments to do better in the future. This is the work of teshuvah (repentance) that we are called upon to do at this season.
We do not do this work alone. Yes, we have our own individual atonement to make. But we are all doing this work at the same time, and so are joined together in common cause as a community of reflection.
So we can take a cue from the Ice Bucket Challenge. During the High Holiday season we publically declare our intention to improve ourselves and our world. One good deed can inspire others to do likewise. An act of teshuvah can also inspire another to do likewise. Teshuvah grows exponentially. No water required.